Spike Jonze with Max Records on the set of Where the Wild Things Are. Photo: Supplied Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in Her directed by Spike Jonze. Photo: Supplied.
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Film director Spike Jonze.

The last time Spike Jonze broke a camera, he was skateboarding backwards along a smooth stretch of Shanghai pavement, filming Joaquin Phoenix running through a crowd on the set of Her. Many of the extras chosen to people his shot didn’t speak English, and on take three, one man misunderstood his instructions, faced the wrong way, and didn’t see the director coming. Jonze rammed into him at full tilt and went down hard on the cement.

He didn’t mourn the camera for long; no more than the Arriflex SR3 that dropped out of a moving van when he was making the video for Sabotage with the Beastie Boys, or the Panaflex Platinum that fell overboard in rough seas off the coast of Victoria filming Where The Wild Things Are, or the many Hi-8 and 16mm rigs he wrecked making skate films in his 20s. “I love cameras, so it’s not that I’m not respectful of them,” he says. “It’s just that… I get excited.”

Shooting while skating was something he’d done a thousand times. Falling and hurting himself, too. Back then he was searching for new angles to capture his mates performing their nollie heelflips and noseblunt slides. In Shanghai he was making a $23 million feature film, later nominated for five Academy Awards. He sees little difference between the two.

“It has always felt like me and my friends making things. Even if we got a lot of money from Warner Brothers to make a movie, it still has the same spirit,” he says. “When you’re making a skate video, you’re mucking around but you’re also taking it really seriously. You’re driving all night to a spot, waiting until the security guards are gone, jumping the fence, trying to get the shot before you get kicked out. It’s fun but we take it seriously and it’s the same making a movie.

“It’s all play. Play doesn’t mean it’s always fun and frivolous. You can play with the deepest ideas. Play can be melancholy and surreal and dig into deeper things, as long as you’re coming at it with a sense of exploration.”

There are times when it isn’t play, of course. It wasn’t much fun telling Samantha Morton that he had decided to recast the other central character in Her. She had portrayed an advanced, artificially intelligent version of Apple’s Siri, interacting with Phoenix from a soundproof box on the set. Ditching her for Scarlett Johansson was an emotionally wrenching decision that also created formidable technical challenges.

There was nothing playful about the fights with executives at Warner Brothers, after they told him his $100 million adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are was too dark. In the edit suite, Jonze often finds himself thinking “this is a terrible idea, this is never going to work, is this even interesting?”. He’s game for anything, but as “tortured” as the next artist.

Most days, the thought of talking to a journalist would also drop into the Not Play box with a dull thud. He has been known to turn up in character or to respond to every question with one of his own, and once convinced a talk show host that it would be funny if he said nothing at all. In the DVD extras of his first movie, Being John Malkovich, an “interview” conducted in his car ends with Jonze pulling over to puke.

So when we meet, at a cafe near his loft in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I’m primed for an awkward, or at least halting conversation. I know not to ask about his four-year marriage to fellow director Sofia Coppola, or his parents’ divorce (a subject that came up a lot after his Wild Things implied that Max was angry and confused about his mum and dad splitting up). But in the event he turns out to be charming, thoughtful and inspiring in his enthusiasm.

Jonze is coming to Australia to appear at the Vivid festival, in conversation with Vivid Ideas director Jess Scully. “My friend in Sydney tells me she’s cool,” he says, but that’s as much thought as he’s given it. “What should I talk about?” he asks.

He hasn’t made a movie for three years, since Her, and isn’t working on a script, but he rejects the notion that he is on hiatus, as this implies that feature length films are his day job and everything else is secondary, which isn’t true. “I just make what I’m interested in making next,” he says.

This might be Kanye West’s twisted fantasy, a stop-motion animation in a Parisian bookstore, a dystopian vision of suburban adolescence scored by the Arcade Fire or an advert for adidas, Levi’s or Nissan. Jonze is for hire, if his interest can be piqued. His latest short follows Late Show host Stephen Colbert on a journey across New York in the company of Grover from Sesame Street.

A friend recently got a dog, so Jonze wrote a story about it as a gift. He also writes songs on his guitar just for himself, although he can’t really play or sing. “It’s the buzz of ‘there was nothing, and now there’s something’. It’s the best feeling.”

His faith in the transformative power of creativity reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut, and a line in his essays that I’ve cherished since meeting him a decade ago: “The only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness … is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imaginations.” Jonze nods. He met Vonnegut at a party once, and would love to have had more time to talk to him. “What was he like?” He wants to know.

Jonze has an undying love of dumb, funny stuff and a precocious, unfiltered imagination. He has often been described as child-like, particularly since Wild Things made manifest the desires and anxieties of a nine-year-old boy. “Spike is still half Max, probably, to this day,” his co-writer Dave Eggers told GQ.

“I think there’s something about being creative where you don’t censor yourself,” Jonze says. “That freedom, I guess, can be described as childlike … There’s something beautiful when you see a kid that’s that free to express themselves, and it’s hard to hold on to.”

Aren’t you still that free? It’s an extraordinary privilege. “Certainly to be given millions of dollars to express myself is a very privileged … But I think being privileged to express yourself sounds like someone is giving you permission to do it, and I think we all have permission to,” he says. We bat this back and forth for a while until he agrees that yes, he is a lucky bastard.

Jonze was 27  when MTV commissioned Jackass and started paying him to film Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Bam Margera and Chris Pontius jousting on BMX bikes, wrestling alligators, shooting themselves out of cannons and drenching each other in sewage. They stole ideas from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and Tom and Jerry most of all, and could hardly believe their good fortune.

“They gave us money to make eight episodes, whatever we wanted, and we thought we were getting away with murder.” Three seasons of television and four movies later, the franchise is still going, just, as its overgrown teenage stars hit their 40s and struggle to stay sober.

His latest role, the closest thing he has to a day job, is running Viceland, a cable TV network launched in February with an opening slate of programmes including Gaycation, following Ellen Page on journeys to LGBT holiday spots, an adventures-in-the-world-of-legal-marijuana show called Weediquette, and F–k, That’s Delicious, starring rapper turned chef Action Bronson.

Jonze’s official title at Viceland is president, a designation he describes as “pretty crazy”. Although he’s only 46, he’s a generation older than most of the talent. “Technically, kids are so sophisticated because they’re taking in media from a young age. They’re shooting and editing. I think there’s a real sophistication to young film-makers because they’ve been doing it their whole lives,” he says.

He has often expressed admiration for artists that operate outside the corporate structure, from punks Fugazi, who booked their own shows and printed their own T-shirts rather than sign a record deal, to his friends the Beastie Boys, who spent their first big advance on a studio of their own. Is he ready to be a suit, I wonder, telling film-makers they have gone too far, or not far enough, or that their big ideas won’t attract an audience?

“As we get bigger [at Viceland], we need to have more structure. It can’t be so chaotic that things can’t get done but it has to have enough freedom to let creative ideas happen,” he says, adding that “it’s kind of ridiculous that somebody gave us this much money and carte blanche to do whatever we want.”

Vice supremo Shane Smith is building something self-consciously edgy, with content targeted at millennials, but he has the acquisitive ambitions of an old-fashioned media mogul. How long Jonze sticks around will depend on his tolerance for meetings, his ability to delegate, and whether he can still find time to express himself despite all the people clamouring for his attention.

One afternoon in Shanghai, he needed a shot showing Phoenix’s point of view as his disembodied girlfriend lets him down gently. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema​ was otherwise engaged, so Jonze chose to do himself. For 20 minutes, he lay on the bed filming dust particles drifting and glinting in the light of magic hour.

As he was shooting at 120 frames a second, to run in slow-motion; he would later have to scroll through 80 minutes of rushes. He only used nine seconds in the end, but it didn’t matter. It was all play.

Short and sweet

Almost all of Spike Jonze’s shorts are available to stream online. His skating videos are a good place to start, from Video Days, shot on Hi-8 and edited tape to tape to the full length Yeah Right!, which features invisible skateboards and a memorable cameo from Owen Wilson. The most recent, Pretty Sweet, opens with a long drone shot of skateboarders performing tricks with Busby Berkeley precision as a cannon shoots confetti into the air.

His most memorable music videos include an equally choreographed dance number for Bjork (It’s Oh So Quiet), a Happy Days pastiche he shot for Weezer (Buddy Holly), the hilarious homage to 1970s cop shows he made with the Beastie Boys (Sabotage), his infamous performance with a community breakdance troupe for Fatboy Slim (Praise You) and my favourite, Drop, an ingenious clip for hip-hop group The Pharcyde, shot backwards, that appears to defy the law of gravity.

His commercials are no less wildly imaginative. There’s the Gap ad where customers tear a store apart, a clip for Levi’s in which the bleeps of a hospital monitor inspire the doctors and nurses in an operating theatre to dance to Tainted Love by Soft Cell, and the most famous of all, for IKEA, about a lonely lamp cast out on the pavement.

We Were Once a Fairytale is a little longer, at 11 minutes. It follows Kanye West, behaving badly at a nightclub, vomiting petals of red confetti and encouraging a cuddly-ish animated gerbil to commit seppuku. It’s odd, to say the least. And if you have half an hour to spare, I’m Here is a sweet story about the relationship between two androids in Los Angeles, and the lengths people will go to save the one they love.

Spike Jonze appears as part of Vivid’s Game Changers talks series At Sydney Town Hall on June 5.

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